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Lefthanded compliment

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 19, 2008 10:12 PM

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He certainly was for real on the mound last night in the most overpowering performance of his 37-start career. Lester struck out nine and allowed just two Kansas City batters to reach base. He pounded the strike zone and trusted his stuff, starting out 20 of 29 hitters with a first-pitch strike in a 130-pitch effort.

His fastball had a little extra sizzle - he touched 96 in the adrenaline-fueled ninth and absolutely smoked Alberto Callaspo for the final out - and his curve and cutter were sharp. It was like watching Chuck Finley in his prime, with an occasional nod to Bruce Hurst, Andy Pettitte, and the young Steve Avery. It was a reminder of how highly regarded he was as a prospect just three years ago, when he was named Eastern League Pitcher of the Year over guys named Papelbon, Verlander, and Liriano, and it's fair to say the front office's reluctance to include him a swap for the great Johan Santana is more justified than it has ever been.

The gleeful aftermath last night was almost as enjoyable as the game itself. The genuine affection Lester's teammates have for him was apparent - hell, it's not often that Josh Beckett becomes awestruck and sentimental. You don't often see a young player held in such high regard, but then, Lester's obviously not just any kid. Jason Varitek, who now has four no-hitters on his catching resume and might have another had Curt Schilling not shaken him off in Oakland last summer, played the role of big brother, a smile creasing that familiar stoic mug as he presented Lester the ball from the final out. Red Sox manager Terry Francona, a truly decent man, reminded you of a proud dad. Maybe you felt the same way.

"He's not just a good kid because he threw a no-hitter," said Francona, who admitted he and pitching coach John Farrell, perhaps Lester's biggest advocate in the organization, were getting teary-eyed as the ninth inning unfolded. "He's a good kid because he's a good kid."

It's impossible to exaggerate how meaningful this is. The Red Sox, to their eternal credit, are downright heroic in their contributions to the fight against cancer with their longstanding relationship with Dana Farber and the Jimmy Fund. Every time Lester takes the mound from now until the final pitch his career, he will stand tall as a hero and an inspiration to those scared children getting treatment just a few blocks from Fenway. He could throw a half-dozen more no-hitters, and his status as a survivor would remain his greatest legacy.

On a much lesser scale, this is one of those occurrences that reaffirms your committment as a fan at a time when such dedication is often assailed and ridiculed. As one longtime correspondent put it in an email not long after Lester's final pitch last night:

For anyone out there who can't understand the emotion that we sports fans put into any given team's season, this is why we watch sports. Moments like this make it all worthwhile.

So true. It's funny, there was a time not so long ago - earlier this decade, actually - when fans from my generation wondered if we'd ever witness a Sox no-hitter. Now they own four of the last six in the AL, and all four came wrapped in a different package.

The first, in April 2001, came from Hideo Nomo, a journeyman making his Boston debut, and I'm still waiting for Don Orsillo to get excited about it. Converted reliever and incurable flake Derek Lowe delivered his masterpiece a little more than a year later, then wide-eyed rookie Clay Buchholz came through with perhaps the most dominating performance of all of them in his second big league start last September. And now, Mr. Lester. You'll note that none were by the pitchers of greatest repertoire or reputation, the Schillings, Becketts, and Martinezes.

Weird game, baseball. It's why we love it. You just never know when something magical will happen. Though when Jon Lester's on the mound, it seems the odds are better than with most.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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